The third Harry Potter movie—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—marks a serious departure in both substance and tone from the first two chapters of the saga. At this point in the story, we are done establishing the ground rules for the way the Wizarding World works, as well as the notion that the disembodied Lord Voldemort is plotting to finish what he started. The splendor of this world has become familiar enough that we can now pay attention to its dark side. Namely, that there is enough evil besides Voldemort to warrant the existence of Azkaban, a prison so fearsome that to be sentenced to it is a bit like being sentenced to death and committed to an asylum at the same time. We first saw Azkaban referenced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but now we really understand what it means to be sent there, and the resulting public crisis when one of its most vilified inmates escapes, apparently on a mission to kill Harry Potter.
This is a far darker turn for the saga, and Chris Columbus’ wonderland style of storytelling is no longer a good fit, which is why the introduction of Alfonso Cuarón (who would later direct Children of Men and Gravity) marks a thematic change of pace as stark as this chapter’s narrative one. The movie’s overcast color palette signals a sudden grayness that embodies the smudged roles of guilt, innocence, right and wrong that drive this story. But more than pure visuals, Cuarón’s treatment of the characters takes full advantage of their deepening adolescence. We see them without their robes, outside of Hogwarts, and free to express the sullen angst that comes with challenging teenage years. Given the struggles they are up against this time around, the look of our heroes and their world match the ever-increasing stakes of dangers both immediate and distant.
One of the biggest payoffs for me in Prisoner of Azkaban is Harry’s discovery of his patronus, a sign of his tapping his innermost strength. But as he does that, he also comes into contact with the spirits of his lost parents while trying to set right the various crimes that surrounded their murder. Here we see Harry’s bravery and spirit on display once again as he battles a pack of malevolent spirits that subsist on happiness itself. The scene establishes Harry not just as the kid with a big pedigree, but as a young hero thrust into a situation far, far bigger than himself. And while this might be the climax of the movie, it is not its moment of truth. That comes far earlier, in what kind of comes off as a throw-away scene involving Hermione Granger. While she, Harry and Ron are pursuing important clues and trying to solve some life-and-death problems, she is confronted yet again with the incessant, racist bullying of Draco Malfoy. Hermione hasn’t got time to get into this with Draco, and she lays him out with a single punch. “That felt good,” she says with a grin, showing that she isn’t all just book learning and cleverness. She’s got a limit, and if you push her past it, she’s going to hit back. She is, after all, a Gryffindor. What was Malfoy expecting? Nothing, actually. Bullies never do. That’s why they never fight once opposed. They don’t know how.
What makes this a moment of truth though, isn’t the cathartic pleasure of seeing Malfoy get is face rearranged, but the destruction of the idea that Draco is any kind of major trouble for Harry, Hermione and Ron to worry about. Throughout the first two chapters of this saga, Draco is always hovering in the background, sneering and ready to pounce. He is set up as the anti-Harry, to grow in malevolence as Harry grows in valor, so that whatever happens next, Draco will be there to serve as Harry’s first and worst challenge.
And yet, that’s not going to happen. Hermione’s punch tells us that. The way she puts him on his back shows that whatever Draco has in mind for our heroes, it pales before the real troubles on the horizon. For all of his scowling malice, Draco is a little loser, a pipsqueak annoyance good only for use as a pawn by greater powers. He has already dropped out of the race of heroic opposition involving Harry and his friends as the story shifts to conflicts bigger than petty school-time squabbles. Even if the rest of this movie comes down to another caper in which Harry, Hermione and Ron must clear the name of the wrongly accused and defuse a mystery threatening the school, in the background we are given fair warning. “Mischief managed” isn’t just a power phrase for a magic item. It’s the movie’s way of telling us that playtime is over.